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Blog | Apr 28, 2021

Leading Inclusive Teams

HITT leaders Sheila Sears, Peter Thaler, and Cliff Chow share advice on creating more inclusive teams that celebrate diversity

While diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) are the responsibility of all, prioritization at the top strengthens teams at every level. As we focus on cultivating a diverse and inclusive environment at HITT, we lean on our strong leaders who build and mentor their teams with fairness and respect. We sat down with three senior leaders to learn how inclusion creates more innovative, productive, and engaged teams.

(L-R: General Counsel Sheila Sears, Senior Vice President Cliff Chow, and Senior Vice President Peter Thaler)

Sheila Sears leads HITT’s Legal and Risk Management teams in her role as General Counsel. Based in the Washington, DC headquarters, she has worked at HITT for more than eight years, all the while building a powerhouse team. A first-generation American, her parents immigrated to the United States in 1971 from Nepal, and she’s extremely proud of her Nepali culture and traditions.

Peter Thaler is Senior Vice President leading HITT’s Richmond and Raleigh offices. A building industry veteran who has led many diverse groups throughout his career, Peter is passionate about creating spaces where all feel welcome.

Senior Vice President Cliff Chow heads our New York office, one of HITT’s most diverse teams. A first-generation immigrant from China, he came to the US for school in 1992, pursued success in the construction industry, and encourages others to do the same.

To build more inclusive teams, Sheila, Peter, and Cliff shared the following thoughts:

1) Proactively communicate and instill an open-door policy.
It’s important to get comfortable with talking about diversity and inclusion by making it part of the daily conversation. When teams consistently hear the celebration of new ideas, individuals, and perspectives, they are more likely to be accepting and encourage inclusive behaviors in their teammates. By showing they care about creating a sense of belonging, leaders can address challenges before they become an issue. 

“Even though New York is one of the world’s most diverse places and it’s woven into my team’s fabric, I make it a priority to create an environment where all are welcome and celebrated. The fair treatment of all team members is vital to business success. I strive to create an environment with an open-door policy for any conversation, and it’s helped to keep our team on track and address any issues that may arise,” said Cliff.

2) Be aware of bias and address microaggressions.
Microaggressions, such as excluding a co-worker who looks different, ideas such as “color blindness,” or talking over women colleagues are the most common and hurtful behaviors in the workplace. What may seem like a harmless joke can communicate hostility or feel demeaning. These sometimes hard-to-spot behaviors can make people feel excluded and damage team morale. Leaders need to set an example by understanding their own personal (and perhaps unconscious) biases, calling unacceptable behaviors out, and making it known they are not welcome in their workplace.

Sheila shared, “Seemingly minor actions can have hurtful consequences, like mispronouncing or dismissing names. I chose to change my name when I got married, in small part for that reason. I spent my entire life with people unable or unwilling to pronounce or spell my last name properly; leaders need to be mindful that something so simple can be very demeaning. It shows respect when you take the time to learn how to pronounce someone’s name correctly.”

3) Practice humility and courage.
Courage and humility go hand-in-hand with leadership. Often, leaders are afraid to admit when they don’t have all the answers. By demonstrating openness to challenge attitudes, admit gaps in knowledge, and seek more information, true leaders can create an inclusive space by opening dialogue and encouraging discussion, even when the topics are sensitive or uncomfortable. 

Peter said, “To be more inclusive, it’s important to talk to co-workers and understand what makes them happy. We may not have all the answers as leaders, but by inquiring about someone’s cultures and how to celebrate their individuality, or understanding what might be offensive to them because of these differences, you can bring them into the fold.”

Sheila elaborated saying, “It’s okay to acknowledge as leaders that the concepts of DE&I are difficult and may be uncomfortable. Recently, my team held a listening activity and invited people to share microaggressions, stereotypes, or perceptions that impact them. The respectful discussion surrounding race, gender, and religious stereotypes created awareness throughout the group. Self-awareness, listening, learning, and an openness to changing mindsets will go a long way in demonstrating our collective desire for a more inclusive workplace.”

4) Gather and celebrate cultural intelligence.
The beauty of diverse teams is each person provides insights based on their unique perspectives. Leaders can embrace this advantage by taking the time to know what makes each person unique and understanding what makes individuals feel a sense of belonging. This creates a deep and genuine culture of team camaraderie and encourages each person to bring their full self to work.

“It’s important to understand people’s cultural differences for others to accept and include them.” Peter continued, “For instance, team members may have religious or personal preferences that don’t allow them to eat meat, so a celebratory team lunch at a steakhouse would exclude them or make them feel uncomfortable.”

“I’m Chinese, Asian, and naturalized American citizen, but my diversity is more than that,” Cliff shared. “Diversity is what makes this company such an incredible place to work. Despite our team’s differences in hobbies, interests, or backgrounds, it’s important that we all embrace the same values, learn about one another, and remain open-minded.”

We’re grateful for these exemplary leaders who model respect and fairness through their words and actions daily.  To learn more about the employee experience at HITT, visit our Careers page. Read more about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at HITT here.

Follow along as we continue to share HITT team members’ stories all month.

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